A rambling 19th-century house built into the ruins of a medieval castle draped in wisteria, Ballymaloe is the password for “coziest inn in Ireland.” Myrtle Allen has lived here since 1947, raising her six children and slowly building a reputation—first national and then international—as an inspired self- trained cook, cookbook author, and born hostess.
Most kitchen ingredients (except for the signature fresh fish offerings direct from nearby Ballycotton Harbor) are from Allen’s famous orchards, gardens, and 400-acre working farm that surround the country house. The ancient gatehouse and stables have been converted into large, comfortable guest quarters (Mrs. Allen tries to book guests into rooms that suit them best).
In a nearby converted apple barn, Darina, her ebullient daughter-in-law (herself a well-known cookbook author and leading authority on Irish food) runs the country’s first and most important cooking school (more than thirty courses are offered yearly, from one day to several weeks each).
Ballymaloe (“place of honey” in Gaelic) owes its special conviviality to the enveloping welcome of the extended Allen clan and family-like staff who create an elegant, but very unhotel-like atmosphere, “divorced from snobbery” as Myrtle Allen would say while describing her simple country-house cooking.
Some claim chef William O’Callaghan is the most important force working in the Irish kitchen today. How appropriate that he is given carte blanche at Longueville House, his family’s ancestral Georgian mansion. On the family’s recently, Longueville boasted Ireland’s only vineyard, making its own limited production of a fine Riesling-like wine in this land enamored of beer and whiskies.
The entire O’Callaghan family is on hand to oversee a highly professional operation: Longueville is both smooth and casual. The hotel’s award winning Presidents’ Room restaurant is lined with the portraits of Ireland’s past heads of state; those still alive show up in person when in the area. The finger bowl set will not be disappointed, nor will those looking for the exceptional weekend or special occasion. The O’Callaghans have called this splendid mansion home since 1720. Before that their ancestors, the Ua Ceallachains, resided in the 16th-century castle whose crumbling ruins can be seen on the grounds, at the foot of a grassy hill near the banks of the Blackwater River, the Irish Rhine.
Winner of the much-coveted National Gardens Award, the postcard- perfect Assolas welcomes guests like family—one couldn’t hope to be treated more royally than at the memorable meals orchestrated in the red jewel-box Queen Anne dining room. The 17th-century vine-covered Assolas is run by consummate hosts: it has been the Bourke family home for generations, and it is impossible to guess when it began welcoming paying guests.
The simple charm and beauty of this lovely corner of County Cork should not be taken for granted. Young chef and co-owner Hazel Bourke approaches her cooking with an appreciation for the strength of simplicity. Using only local and absolutely fresh ingredients, many from the house’s walled garden, she serves everything as straightforwardly as possible: the result is always superb.
Kanturk sits right in the middle of Ireland’s finest dairy region and provides Bourke with an excellent selection of farm-fresh cheese and dairy products: try her simple and simply wonderful cream of celery and lovage soup. For all its elegance, Assolas is also relaxed and homey: the waterproof boots at the door are for guests to use on an afternoon’s walk around the estate’s beautiful grounds in the Irish mist.
In yesterday’s gastronomically challenged Ireland of corned beef and cabbage, seaside Kinsale’s role as the country’s culinary capital may have been taken as a comical oxymoron. But since the so-called Irish cooking revolution, this beautiful yachting and fishing town on the Irish Sea and its impressive (and still growing) profusion of excellent restaurants large and small has drawn pampered palates from near and far.
The increasingly popular Kinsale International Gourmet Food Festival might include everything from a cooking demonstration by the Housewife of the Year to oyster husking. Unofficial headquarters is the hopping, much-loved Blue Haven Hotel. Situated on the site of the Old Fish Market in the center of Kinsale, a superb dinner at the Blue Haven’s top-notch seafood restaurant doesn’t leave guests with much room for the next morning’s renowned seven-course Irish breakfast—you’ll be tempted nonetheless if you’ve had the foresight to check into the recently refurbished guest rooms next door.
Despite its growing popularity, Kinsale is still a fine town for strolling. Its cobblestoned streets are lined with pastel-painted 18th-century homes and there’s a harbor full of bobbing boats, but you can pub-hop straight to The Spaniard Inn for hilltop views, simple food, and foot-tapping Irish music.
Splendid ancestral home to one of the few native Gaelic families of royal blood, Dromoland Castle was built in 1543 by the O’Briens, barons of Inchiquin, direct descendants of the High King Brian Bora, valiant leader of a victory over the Danes in 1014. Today the eighteenth Baron of Inchiquin still lives on the grounds (but with 370 acres, don’t expect to see him in the breakfast room or during afternoon tea). Imposing from outside, inside this massive pile is surprisingly intimate—a scrapbook of Irish history where the exemplary service demanded by the O’Briens still prevails.
The grand elegance of Dromoland is most evident in the theatrical setting of its high-ceilinged dining room. House specialties such as Dromoland Estate venison with fig chutney give new sophistication to local cuisine. One could conceivably never leave the grounds, if not for the enticing vicinity of the fabled Ballybunion Golf Course, 70 miles away, and Lalhinch, the “St. Andrew’s of Ireland” only 35 miles away. Dromoland’s own 18-hole golf course serves nicely as a backyard alternative, and an on-site luxury spa, horseback riding, and shooting will placate nongolfers.
One must-do day trip is the half-hour drive to the nearby Cliffs of Moher, one of Ireland’s most dramatically beautiful natural attractions. Rising majestically up out of the Atlantic 700 to 1,220 feet, these dark walls of moss-covered limestone stretch for 5 miles between Hag’s Head and O’Brien’s Tower.
Ireland’s number two city hosts the country’s number one jazz festival during a fall weekend before settling in for a winter’s respite. Cork is the South’s sporting, commercial, and brewing center: Guinness’s two contenders, the well-loved dry stouts Murphy’s and Beamish, are both produced in County Cork. But it is Guinness—what James Joyce called “the wine of Ireland”—that sponsors this major music fest. Beer plays a big role in keeping the beat alive, though one overshadowed by the power, quality, and diversity of the music in a country in love with its musical heritage.
The big-time international names perform in the Opera House and a number of other theaters around town, but the pubs and street comers can offer up some of the festival’s most inspiring, and spontaneous, performances by up-and-coming talents. Nearby Kinsale (18 miles/29 km southwest of Cork; see below) has recently taken up the torch as a smaller, more intimate venue with a jazz fest all its own.
In Cork, stay above the hubbub at the late- Georgian former home of the Lord Mayor of Cork, the Arbutus Lodge, whose panoramic views are outdone by the hotel’s famous restaurant highlighting classic Irish cuisine and the most impressive wine cellar in the area. The Arbutus Lodge Hotel is the best in Cork and houses Cork’s very best restaurant. Although its fashionable location and hilltop vantage are part of the allure, the festival fever never feels far away: most of the festival headliners call this family-run place home.
Visit Ireland and not kiss the Blarney Stone? Not if you want to obtain that precious “gift of the gab” acknowledged by Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde when describing his own people as “a nation of great failures but the greatest talkers since the Greeks.” Hordes of people come from the most distant corners of the world, clamber up the 127 steep steps of 500-year-old Blarney Castle, lie on their backs over a sheer drop of 120 feet (strong-armed “holders” guarantee there are no mishaps, but no one seems to consider the germ factor), and contort themselves into unflattering positions to kiss a rock believed to have made its way here in 1314 from Scotland.
Others claim the oblong block of limestone dates back to the Crusades. Regardless, and for inexplicable reasons, the stone was always believed to have special powers and continues to exercise much fascination. Elizabeth I is said to have introduced the word blarney into the English language in the 16th century when the silver-tongued lord of Blarney Castle plied her with one too many unfulfilled honey-sweet promises. “Blarney! It’s all blarney!” the perturbed queen was said to have remarked.
Ireland’s other must-see castle is the country’s most authentic (and also highly trafficked). Built alongside the O’Gamey River and today surrounded by a huge theme park of a 19th-century Irish village, the current Bunratty Castle was built in the early 1400s, although earlier fortifications may have dated back to the 13th century at this strategic site. This great rectangular edifice with square towers is Ireland’s most complete and most impressive medieval stronghold. Its center-piece Great Hall is where the resident earl held court and received emissaries under the 48-foot ceilings.
Deep coffers have furnished the castle today with a magnificent collection of period furniture, paintings, sculpture, and tapestries. Torch lit medieval-style banquets offer those who leave skepticism back at the hotel a most enjoyably raucous evening of traditional Irish music and eat-with-your-hands meals, flowing claret, and mugs of mead at long communal tables.
You will find among the woods,” wrote one of the residents of Tintern Abbey, “something you never found in books.” Once a thriving center of religion and learning and the richest abbey in Wales, Tintern was 1536 by Henry VIII when the slate roof was destroyed, Tintern had grown to include the abbey church, chapter house, infirmary, and dining hall, their outlines still visible.
Marked paths through the surrounding woodland lead up to Devil’s Pulpit, a well- known lookout over the poignant grace of Tintern’s remains, the vista that likely inspired Wordsworth’s much-loved sonnet celebrating the greatness of God in nature: “And I have felt, A presence that disturbs me with the joy of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime. . . .”
Up on the hill in St. Martin’s churchyard, in the refreshingly uncommercialized town of Laugharne, a simple white cross marks the grave of Dylan Thomas, Wales’s most famous poet, and his wife, Caitlin.
There are still old-timers in town who remember him sitting in Brown’s Hotel, the local pub where he would regularly enjoy a pint. The nearby boathouse where he lived with his wife for the last years of his life has become a shrine in miniature. Thomas devotees come in a steady stream, attempting to grasp something of the man. His writing shed and home are just as he left them, filled with his papers, manuscripts, and furnishings.
It was here that he wrote some of his most famous works, including Under Milk Wood, his “play for voices” translated into the classic film in 1971 starring Welsh-born Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, and Peter O’Toole and filmed in nearby Fishguard.
The boathouse’s quiet setting overlooking the Taf estuary is lyrically beautiful: it takes little to imagine the pull it exerted on Thomas, who died at the age of thirty-nine in 1953, at New York City’s White Horse Tavern.
This compact little border town in the Black Mountains claims to be the world’s capital of antiquarian and secondhand books and is a monument to British eccentricity. The farming community of 1,300 surrounded by sheep-grazed hills has anywhere from twenty to thirty-five bookstores (depending on whom you ask) that stock millions of titles. Its annual Festival of Literature is known to bibliophiles everywhere—writers and poets come from around the world to give readings and hold informal discussions of their work. It may be the most prestigious literary festival in Britain, and it certainly is the most interesting. The audiences at some of the 150 scheduled events, featuring more than 250 authors in ten days, are a discerning lot of vociferous readers and critics who relish interaction with authors of integrity in a charming rustic setting and as yet uncommercialized venue.
Stay nearby at Llangoed Hall, a longtime favorite of festivalgoers. The hotel has a well- heeled family feel, discreetly taking its direction from owner Sir Bernard Ashley, whose personal collection of objects and paintings is lavishly distributed throughout this comfortably grand country’ house dating back to the 1600s. With no reception desk, guests are treated like family friends and whisked directly up to gorgeously decorated chambers. The lodgings are graced with the unmistakable flair, originality, and good taste long associated with Laura Ashley, the company founded by Sir Bernard and his late wife. Situated on the grassy banks of the River Wye (which provides guests with some of the best salmon and trout fishing in the United Kingdom), it has garnered many accolades since opening in 1990, all deserved, for the 10 acres of pristine gardens with views over the Black Mountains, the wonderfully professional staff who nurture Llangoed’s just-like-home philosophy, the excellent food from a refined kitchen, the chance to stretch one’s legs in the bordering 500-square-mile Brecon Beacons National Park, and the relaxed ambience of an Edwardian house Uangoed Hall party. It may well be here that you’ll first understand that the expression Croesco y Cymru (“Welcome to Wales”) also means “Welcome home.”